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Reviewed by:
  • A God of One’s Own, and: The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict
  • Alick Isaacs (bio)
Ulrich Beck, A God of One’s Own (Cambridge: Polity, 2010), 231 pp.;
William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 296 pp.

In an eye-opening essay titled “The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the Nation State,” Cavanaugh turns a well-known story on its head, arguing that the architects of the modern state, who forced the church out of the public sphere, invented the internalized, localized, and limited notion of “religion” that we know today, and then seized power. Rather than constructing the apparatus that would bring peace to the world, as the liberal myth would have it, Cavanaugh insists that these men invented the most destructive mechanism of war the world has ever known: the secular nation state. Cavanaugh insists, further, that the “Wars of Religion” were not the events that necessitated the birth of the modern state; they were themselves “the birth pangs of the State.” His purpose in this text is “to focus on the way revulsion to killing in the name of religion is used to legitimize the transfer of ultimate loyalty to the modern State.” If “the process of making States” was indeed, as Cavanaugh claims, “inseparable from the pursuit of war by the power elites of emergent States,” then the challenge he takes on is how to bring religion back and, by doing so, redeem the state from violence. His response to this question is to imagine a brotherhood of Christian disciples who are dedicated to the doctrines of peace and love that Christ taught and are ready to bring these into a civil space that religion may occupy. This disappointingly impractical and unclear conclusion to an essay that is otherwise razor sharp and pertinent may indicate what we all must realize—that this is a question that will take many generations (if not a God) to resolve. But the main point I would like to make, after this too-lengthy preamble, is that Cavanaugh leaves us hard pressed to imagine how the notion of a privatized, internalized “God of One’s Own”—pace Beck—could [End Page 147] ever be part of the solution to a problem that it is responsible for inventing in the first place.

Alick Isaacs

Alick Isaacs is the author of A Prophetic Peace: Judaism, Religion, and Politics and codirector of the Talking Peace project, sponsored by Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem. He is associate editor (for history and religion) of Common Knowledge.



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pp. 147-148
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